The Minnesota Vikings have a special problem with their special teams. We know their special teams unit was one of the very worst in all of the NFL last year, but they have already taken steps towards improvements by not renewing Marwan Maalouf’s contract. However, a glaring issue remains. While the Vikings do not lack experience or kickers without past success, Dan Bailey struggled down the stretch of the 2020 campaign, and Britton Colquitt may have been one of the worst punters in the NFL.
Firstly, let me say that I am far less concerned about Bailey’s struggles. He made 36 of his first 39 kicks this season, and he really only posted two bad games that just happened to be memorably awful. In those two games against Jacksonville and Tennessee he went 3/10 on his kicks, but outside of that made 49 of 55 for a respectable 89%. I expect he’ll bounce back in 2021.
Colquitt, on the other hand, should have Vikings fans worried moving forward. He posted a PFF grade of 56.5 in 2020, putting him as the 32nd ranked punter out of 33. His grade was the worst of his career and especially disappointing after his 74.4 grade in 2019, good for second in the NFL that year.
This should be more concerning than just a player having a down year for this reason. Colquitt will be 36 going into the 2021 season. We have a blueprint for predicting his next few years simply by going off the decline of his brother, Dustin.
Dustin was 38 years old this season and ranked 29th among qualifying punters. Since 2017, his age 34 season, he has not ranked better than 19th and has been 23rd or lower three times. This is coming after he posted three consecutive seasons of grades above 71 from 2014-2016. Britton has posted grades of 65 or lower in five of his last seven seasons.
PFF isn’t the only place noticing Britton’s deficiencies, either. Last week, Rick Gosselin posted his 2020 Special Teams rankings on SI.com, putting Minnesota as the second worst unit. They were only one point better than the historically awful Chargers.
Football Outsiders also ranked Minnesota’s special teams at 31, while ranking their offense eighth and defense 18th. Two stats pointed out as contributing factors in these rankings, reflecting negatively on Colquitt. One, the Vikings had the fewest punts inside the 20, with only 11 all season. Two, their opponents average drive started from the 27 yard line, again the worst in the NFL.
Of course not all the problems with Minnesota’s punting can go on Colquitt. Some blame also has to go on the coverage team. That said, while the Vikings were bad in coverage, they weren’t “worst special teams in the league” bad.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, Minnesota ranked 22nd in opponent punt yards per return at 9.7 per game. Compare that to the Green Bay Packers who gave up an astonishing 17.1 yards per return, and things could have been much worse. It also proves that a punter’s PFF grade does not necessarily correlate with his coverage team’s ability as Green Bay’s punter, J.K. Scott, posted the fourth best grade in the NFL at 79.2.
Because of all these reasons, I’m putting a lot of the blame on Colquitt. He was unable to drive his punts down the field (averaged a middle of the pack 45.1 yards per punt and among punters with 50 attempts, he was one of just five not to post a single punt over 60 yards), and he failed to pin returners in areas where they will be difficult to return (his 11 fair caught punts ranked second-worst ahead of only the Chargers’ Ty Long).
It’s certainly possible that a change in coverage scheme with a new coach will help the Vikings punt team become better. It also didn’t help that Austin Cutting was the long snapper for much of the season. A change could ultimately help cover up some of Colquitt’s recent deficiencies.
However, a bad punter and bad special teams unit can ultimately lead to a team’s downfall, so the Vikings should absolutely bring in competition for Colquitt this training camp. If you need to understand the importance of special teams, just look at the 2010 Chargers who had the best total offense and defense in the NFL. They went 9-7, missing the playoffs because their special teams ranked last in the league. Fun fact, that 2010 Chargers special teams posted the fifth worst DVOA since 1985, and this year Minnesota claimed the seventh worst spot.
It’s certainly time to mix things up, so a new punter could be part of that. People love to bring up Kirk Cousins’ contract; well, maybe we should start talking about Colquitt’s as well. He carries a cap hit of $3.2 million next year. It doesn’t seem like a ton, but it’s the fourth highest in the league among punters. Regardless of the team around him, he has not lived up to that in 2020.